THE ART AND TRADITION OF GINGERBREAD
by Bob Brooke
Sweets and Christmas go together. And what could be more yummy than gingerbread.
This is the time of year when visions of sugarplums and gingerbread men dance in children's and some adult's heads. Whether it takes the form of miniature people, dolls, animals, or houses, gingerbread has become as much a part of the holiday season as shopping and eating turkey.
The holiday tradition of making and eating gingerbread goes back a long time. It seems, so the story goes, that it all started in 2800 B.C. with a Greek baker, the first known maker of gingerbread.
But it wasn't until 1485 in Nuremburg, that the author of the first printed cookbook referred to Lebkuchen, spiced cakes decorated with whole clove and colored icing. Cooks flavored
these delectable cakes with a variety of spices ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, anise and white pepper which came from Eastern Europe and Mediterranean trade routes. They replaced one other expensive and rare ingredient, sugar, with honey, gathered from beekeepers who settled in the woods around the city.
The Lebkuchen bakers considered themselves artisans and carved wooden molds to press patterns into the gingerbread. They also used gold dust to produce an edible paint.
In medieval England, bakers also made gingerbread from honey and spices but mixed them with bread crumbs. They often added wine, ale or other kinds of liquor but eventually substituted molasses and flour for the honey and breadcrumbs.
In France, gingerbread became known as pain d'epice. In 1571, gingerbread bakers formed their own guild to distinguish themselves from other pastry cooks and bakers.
Meanwhile in England, gingerbread had become such an everyday sweet that both Shakespeare and Ben Jonson referred to it their in writings. It became a common sight to see vendors hawking gilded gingerbread images of saints and animals in city streets and at country fairs.
The first folk recognition came in 1812 with the publication of Grimm s Nursery and Household Tales, a collection of German stories. One of them, "Hansel and Gretel," did more for the legend of gingerbread than anything else. In the story, two children get lost in the woods and find a house made of bread and cake, with windows of sugar. German composer Engelbert Humperdinck wrote an opera based on the story, in which the house in the set was made of gingerbread. This established the small cottage as the most popular gingerbread motif.
AND NOW FOR THE BEST PART:
If you want to try to make your own gingerbread holiday decorations, all you need is the basic gingerbread and a good imagination. For decoration you can either use homemade icing squeezed out of a pastry cone or some of the ready to use icing sold in a tube at the supermarket.
Other ingredients you can use are shredded coconut for snow, candy sticks for pillars, sugar cubes, nonpareils as snow covered roof tiles, gum drops for bushes, and inverted ice cream cones covered with green icing for trees.
Once you make your gingerbread house, you can preserve it for several years with acrylic spray, or simply wrap it in plastic and store it in a dry place. The main enemy of gingerbread is humidity, however.
The following is a recipe for the basic gingerbread:
1 cup molasses
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup oil
1-4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1-4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 cup boiling water
2 cups all purpose flour, sifted
1 teaspoon of baking soda (for more fluffy gingerbread add more baking soda up to 3/4 teaspoon)
Using the low speed of an electric mixer, blend molasses, brown sugar, oil, cinnamon, ground cloves, nutmeg and ginger. Add boiling water and blend. Gradually add flour. Beat 2 minutes or until smooth.
Dissolve the baking soda in 2 tablespoons of hot water. Add to batter and blend. Pour into an 8x16-inch sheet pan and bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes. This will produce a low rise gingerbread that's good for cutting into shapes and using to build your house. Depending on the size, you may need to repeat this recipe several times.